Ethernet cables. Chances are you’ve handled them at some point in your life. They seem pretty simple at first glance. A cable is a cable right? Not so much. Ethernet cables all have different capabilities based on how they were constructed.
Construction differences can significantly impact the network speed each one can support. There are two main categories of ethernet cable out on the market right now. CAT5, or category 5, is an older ethernet cable that has been a mainstay in the IT industry for years. CAT6 is its newer younger brother. This cable was released in 2002 and has slowly been taking over the market. Can’t decide between needing a CAT5 installer or a CAT6 installer? Read on to pick which cable is right for you and your company.
CAT5 is currently the industry standard for network and telephone wiring. CAT5 contains four pairs of 24-gauge copper wiring and ends in a standard RJ-45 jack. This type of copper wire cabling is known as twisted pair cabling and is only recommended for a maximum distance of 100 meters or 328 feet. While it does contain four lines of copper wire, two of these copper wires lie dormant. The Electronic Industries Association and Telecommunications Industry Association has actually developed CAT5e, which supports even faster internet by using all four wires. CAT5 cables come in two different varieties: solid and stranded. Solid supports longer distances of ethernet usage and is often used in professional buildings such as an office park. Stranded CAT5 cables are more flexible and better for shorter distances. Because of this, stranded cable is best suited as a “patch cable” meant for connecting two electronic devices together.
CAT5 is not rated to support Gigabit ethernet but can be made to do so. The key to getting Gigabit ethernet through CAT5 cabling is to only cover shorter distances. CAT5 cables often have an issue with signal interference or “crosstalk.” The copper wiring inside the cable is not constructed as tightly as in CAT6, creating a higher risk for signal interference, especially over longer distances. CAT5 supports data speeds of 100 Mbps. This was a huge improvement over its predecessor, CAT3 which could only carry speeds of 10 Mbps. CAT5 isn’t only used as cabling in computer networks. The cable can also support various other signals such as basic voice services, ATM, and Token Ring.
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CAT6 cabling is slowly taking over as the new industry standard in network cabling. Category 6 cabling is another variation of twisted pair cabling. Similar to CAT5, it uses four pairs of copper wire ending in an RJ-45 jack. However, unlike CAT5, CAT6 uses all four pairs of copper wire to produce faster internet speeds. CAT6 decreases crosstalk throughout the cable by using a tighter twist in the copper wire. Besides that, CAT6 is considerably thicker than CAT5. This can be attributed to the tighter twist in the wire, as well as the extra plastic shielding around the cable itself. CAT6 requires this plastic shielding in order to reduce the effect of electromagnetic interference in highly-saturated environments. This shield is typically created by using a drain wire to run the length of the cable and ground at either end.
CAT6 supports 10 Gigabit ethernet, but only over a distance of 164 feet. CAT6A cables are CAT6’s successor and do support 10 Gigabit ethernet over the full distance of 328 feet. After 164 feet, CAT6’s speed is limited to the same as CAT5e at 1 Gigabit. The tighter twist throughout the CAT6 wires also allows for two-way communication, a capability that neither CAT5 nor CAT5e have. At the end of the day, the main differences in the capabilities of CAT6 and CAT5 are:
- Two-way communication
CAT6 is faster overall but has a similar speed to CAT5e over long distances. It can also offer two-way communication. Besides that, CAT6 and CAT5 both have a maximum distance of 328 feet, so it really just depends on what speed you receive over the distance.
Think seriously about your budget before selecting a cable. CAT5 will be the cheapest wire that you can buy. CAT5e will be roughly 30% more expensive than CAT5. CAT6 will be approximately 30% more expensive than CAT5e. Installing a computer network can already cost tens of thousands of dollars depending on the size of your building. Using a cable that is 30 to 60 percent more expensive can have a huge impact on the cost of your project.
While you may be tempted to use CAT5 cabling as the cheapest option, take some time to think about the cable’s relevancy in the future. Will you have to replace it in five years? CAT6 is slowly taking over where CAT5 was the standard. Now, CAT6A has become a consideration on the market as well. You’re already spending a lot of money on this project. Do you want to have to replace it all in the not-so-far future? Keep in mind, that CAT5 has been around since the 1990s and is still being used. However, it won’t be used for forever.
What type of cabling does your business actually use? If you’re looking to run cables long distances but still need higher performance, then I would take a look at CAT5e. You’ll get the same speeds over those long distances as CAT6 but you’ll get them at a cheaper price. What if you only need to run short distances? If you’re only going short distances with patch cables at the end, then CAT6 may be the best option for you. You’ll get extra speed out of your network and it may be more expensive, but the network will last you longer in the future.